Conservatives are Happier?

So says Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute in today's New York Times--

WHO is happier about life — liberals or conservatives? The answer might seem straightforward. After all, there is an entire academic literature in the social sciences dedicated to showing conservatives as naturally authoritarian, dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity, fearful of threat and loss, low in self-esteem and uncomfortable with complex modes of thinking. And it was the candidate Barack Obama in 2008 who infamously labeled blue-collar voters “bitter,” as they “cling to guns or religion.” Obviously, liberals must be happier, right?
Wrong. Scholars on both the left and right have studied this question extensively, and have reached a consensus that it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. Many data sets show this. For example, the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were “very happy” about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades. The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.
Many conservatives favor an explanation focusing on lifestyle differences, such as marriage and faith. They note that most conservatives are married; most liberals are not. (The percentages are 53 percent to 33 percent, according to my calculations using data from the 2004 General Social Survey, and almost none of the gap is due to the fact that liberals tend to be younger than conservatives.) Marriage and happiness go together. If two people are demographically the same but one is married and the other is not, the married person will be 18 percentage points more likely to say he or she is very happy than the unmarried person.
The story on religion is much the same. According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, conservatives who practice a faith outnumber religious liberals in America nearly four to one. And the link to happiness? You guessed it. Religious participants are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives as are secularists (43 percent to 23 percent). The differences don’t depend on education, race, sex or age; the happiness difference exists even when you account for income.
Whether religion and marriage should make people happy is a question you have to answer for yourself. But consider this: Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids.
There's something really misleading about this. Based on the first paragraph, you'd think Brooks was reporting that being conservative makes people more happy. But no--the finding is that conservatives are more happy, and the explanation is that they're more happy because they're more married and more religious.  (The rest of the article doesn't offer any other answer.)  The obvious question, then, is whether there's a difference between married, religious liberals and married, religious conservatives. Too bad he provides no answer!  Strange story--for some reason the NYT editors thought it was good to present this as a story about politics when it's entirely a story about religion and marriage.


faust said...

Well said.

Deepak Shetty said...

The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.
Shouldnt the title be conservatives "report" they are happier? And the question should be - is this true? Conservatives might report they are smarter/wiser/handsomer as well - it doesn't mean anything.

I've seen examples of poor people (usually religious) who are satisfied with starving children because "suffering is good" or "this is God's plan for them"

Jean Kazez said...

The finding that conservatives are happier can't be dismissed that easily-as really just being the finding that they say they are happier. You'd have to read a bunch of stuff in the field to see how researchers get around that worry. Long story, but the anthology Wellbeing (Kahneman) is a good source).


Deepak Shetty said...

Oh im not dismissing it. It's easy to see why people who prefer the status quo(which is part of my definition of conservative) would be happier than those who don't - though I would use the word satisfied or in some cases resigned to or indifferent - rather than "happier"

Some conservatives are fine with the fact that the poor don't have healthcare access - fairly liberal people like me are unhappy despite the fact that we , personally, have good healthcare access. If someone wishes to say that, that makes conservatives more happier - well , shrug.

Jean Kazez said...

Sounds like you didn't read my post or the article--just saying! My point is that the article does not actually offer any evidence that conservative attitudes increase happiness. I starts off seeming to say that, but doesn't actually wind up doing so. Instead, it just says that conservatives as a group are happier, and explains that in terms of the greater prevalence of religion and marriage among conservatives. That's what I'm complaining about. The article at first seems to be about conservative attitudes, but ultimately it really isn't about conservative attitudes at all. It's about other things conservatives have in common--their high rate of marriage and greater religiosity. That's what the author points to as the explanation of their greater happiness.

Deepak Shetty said...

That's what I'm complaining about.
Oh I got that and I dont disagree with that and I did read the post :). Im merely expressing a long standing dislike about surveys that are quoted as if something is true because people self report it.

e.g. Are you smarter than the average person? Do you love gay people (and hate the sin)? - orthogonal to your point , but a pet peeve of mine.